Thursday, July 29, 2010

Kittens, averted

Yesterday, our compound's cat was bulging with pregnancy. Today, she is back to normal size, and her kittens are nowhere to be found. I have heard that cats can mourn the death of their young, but Paka seems unfazed. She wove her way through my legs as I walked from the handwashing station to the lunchroom, purring as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. Then she nipped me on the bare foot, playfully (she is a Sudanese compound cat, after all).

It is a relief, in a way. As a compound, we couldn't agree what to do with the litter. Even the few cat lovers among us recognized the impossibility of fixing a house cat in a country where most people can't afford to buy hand soap, and cat-related conversations of late revolved around potential ways of avoiding a feline population explosion in Alek--dropping Paka and crew off in the middle of the bush somewhere, developing cat-powered farm machinery, promoting cat meat as a new source of protein in the village market.

In true Sudanese fashion, Paka seems to have accepted the reality of her situation here, shaken herself off, and continued on as she can.

Our laundress, Adut, just returned to work after a prolonged stay in a health clinic for her third miscarriage. Apparently, her husband has left her, probably because of her inability to carry a child, as well as her deafness. We communicate with hand signals, mostly, me shooting her lots of thumbs-ups as I pass her, hunched over a plastic tub full of sudsy dress shirts, on my way to the latrine.

Our logistics manager, like many of the more senior-level Sudanese staff, spent most of his teenage years in a refugee camp in northern Uganda, forced to live off of scanty USAID food rations and compete with hundreds of fellow displaced people for water at pumps activated for only a few hours each day.

Every so often, security concerns prompt our organization to activate its "remote control" mode. Expatriate staff escape to Juba or Nairobi, and local staff are left to oversee simplified ground operations, coordinated via radio communications with distant line managers. Our staff operates knowing that the organization could pull out at any time. Ultimately, this is their country, their conflict, their immediate reality.

I operate on American time, as I told our extension workers half-jokingly yesterday, when asking them to please take no more than the allotted 60 minutes for lunch. And frustration comes easily, when your base car's busted air filter means that you won't make an important meeting with traditional leaders from three remote villages who have walked several hours to hear about your imminent vegetable seed distribution, and you have no means of informing them of this fact, or when, due to a murky miscommunication,40 women from a remote village show up at the base expecting vegetable seeds and training two weeks early, and you have to send them home, empty handed, in the pouring rain.

There is no word for "frustration" in Russian, I am told, and the concept is equally foreign here. It helps, when my impatience starts to emerge, to think of Adut, for example, among the piles of laundry, returning my thumbs up with a smile, or Paka the cat, a day after her own quiet tragedy, purring at my feet.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Trashy Mexican Soap: One; Emily: Zero

Inyaki is dead. He was about to marry Paloma, but her Aunt Carlotta poisoned him the night before their wedding. Carlotta appears to be getting away with it so far, but her former maid knows the truth, and Paloma's self-centered friend Ramina is starting to get suspicious. Will the truth emerge, and Carlotta be brought to justice? Will the grief-stricken Paloma follow through with her threats of suicide, or will she seek comfort in the arms of Emiliano, whose love for her has remained constant, despite everything (if he can escape from the clutches of Ramina, that is)?

Two whole nights until the saga continues. How ever will I survive in the meantime?

Monday, July 19, 2010

I said to my soul, be still...

My mission this week: to come to terms with what I can and what I cannot control.

Some external factors don't faze me at all. I don't mind the cockroaches, for example, that scratch their way underneath the canvas of my tent floor in the middle of the night; I just smash them with my water bottle and go back to sleep. I can deal with rice and beans for pretty much every meal, and content myself with the culinary "treats" available here, like mango juice and mashed potatoes. I have accepted the fact that to villagers here, everything I do is both newsworthy and hilarious, whether that be simply hauling buckets of soil around in the garden or jogging down the main road, clad in modest knee-length shorts, for some pre-sunset exercise. I can see the humor in the decades-old plane wrecks scattered around the regional airfields, and the practicality in the bloody slaughter of the occasional goat.

What I do find challenging are apparent obstacles to my ambitions; that is, things that get in the way of how I imagined myself getting where I'd like to be. That could mean colleagues who do not seem to share my drive for efficient achievement; lovers who do not share my understanding of what love entails; the sluggish pace of maddening but necessary bureaucratic processes; and the seeming acceptance of norms that are simply not acceptable, in my mind.

I have been asked to manage Food Security activities at this base for two weeks, while the normal second-in-command takes his leave in Eastern Equatoria, and my "mentor" supervises affairs an hour to the north. Projects move slowly in southern Sudan, partly out of necessity (the roads are shite, the electrical grid nonexistent), partly for cultural reasons, and no doubt to a large extent because of history (the past has not taught most people to set expectations high). And while these reasons are valid, too much complacency seems to mean no forward progress. The school garden that I mentioned last time, for example, failed because the vegetable seeds were distributed too late. Time and resources are easily wasted by lackadaisical planning and execution of activities. There is room to instigate, but the question is how, where and when to do so.

Our coming distribution of vegetable seeds must be preceded by a lengthy process of "beneficiary" identification, during which we inform and seek input from a slew of government and traditional authorities in 20+ rural communities throughout Warrap State. We planned to stop in at the county seat this morning to get the official nod of approval from the commissioner there. We first paused at one of our nutrition centers, along with the nutrition team, to take care of some quick follow-up on a demonstration garden. When we Food Security folks were ready to move on and returned to the pick-up point, the car was not there. It had departed for another village, apparently, for some "community sensitization" work. But not to fear, we were told. It was due back by 1 pm.

Loathe to squander precious hours, I asked our two program staff present to review the vegetable gardening manual that I had thrown together over the past week for an upcoming training. Their feedback was both eye-opening (neither of them had ever seen a real-life cucumber before) and helpful (neem leaf water mixed with laundry detergent makes for effective, low-budget insecticide). The day was shaping up well after all.

But then 1 o'clock rolled around, then 2. Then 3:30. Perhaps the car had gotten stuck, yet again, and we were waiting for a ride that would never come? We had no way of knowing; the group's only satellite phone had stayed with the car. On foot it was six hours to the base, three hours to the nearest large town, from which we could call for help. Someone walked into the village center in search of peanuts. He returned empty-handed 20 minutes later. "No peanuts," he explained, helpfully. I began to plot; if two of us left now, we could make it to the town in time for a spare vehicle to pick us up before curfew. My colleagues, who had taken no food or drink since breakfast, demurred. "Let's wait a bit longer," they insisted. I concurred, with reservations. It seemed that action now might prevent complications later.

Then, our snack-seeker, who had secretly wandered off again, reappeared, this time with plastic bags full of lukewarm sodas and a mass of tiny peanuts. We attacked them ravenously, and in the middle of our feast, the car pulled up, surprisingly mud free. The village it has visited to "sensitize" had simply required some prodding itself, and they had spent several hours rallying people by megaphone before the actual "sensitization" began.

My co-workers had been right not to fret about the tardy car. Such setbacks come with the territory, it would seem. And yet there is still room for change.

I have been working in the garden, largely alone, for the four weeks since I arrived in southern Sudan. Tonight, a co-worker joined me as I was attempting to widen our raised beds. A clean cut Facebook junkie from Equatoria, he helped me shovel and carry buckets of soil, then started chatting with the spectators, transfixed as always. Then our Nutrition Program Manager, a warm, middle-aged Kenyan who spends most nights glued to the TV, strolled in, muttered something about the weeds, grabbed a maloda, and set to work. She stayed with me until dark, murmuring alternately about the absurdity of the tool ("I just want to hoe!"), how inactive she has let herself become and the garden ("It has come so fast since you got here.").

I believe in the power of example, momentum, passion, persistence, as well as the wisdom of openness, understanding and patience (although the latter is not always my strongest suit). If I hope to to achieve anything over these next 17 months, it is to help build positive momentum, not in spite of apparent obstacles, but by learning to work within them.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

This day in the life

7 am. The steady scratching of a grass broom against the sandy ground of the compound, sweeping up the night’s refuse. Empty soda bottles, palm fronds, scat dropped by wandering creatures in the dark. I am awake, having slept fitfully, and am relieved that at last I can emerge from my tent. To the “office,” a metal frame covered with tarps, where I type up notes from a meeting with school teachers yesterday afternoon. Before I forget. They were lovely people, had so much goodwill. “Madam,” one of them said to me, a visiting teacher from northern Uganda, “if you want a thing to succeed, you have to plan. Of all things, you must first make a plan.” We were speaking of gardens, specifically the school vegetable garden that our organization helped to kick start there nine months ago. The seeds were distributed late, only two months before the close of their academic year, and when the students left for the holidays, the plants were still in their infancy. The caretaker appointed to maintain the garden, lacking guidance and support, gave up, and all the plants died.

8:50 am, and breakfast is still not ready. We normally buy bread from the kitchen of the other NGO in town, but the baker has been away, and we have had nothing but digestive biscuits and Nescafe for breakfast for the past four days. My stomach would prefer to escape another such meal, and I am hoping that the rumor that the bread lady has returned is true. It is. The bread arrives, and I scarf down a roll and head out to the front gate, so as not to hold up the car that is to take us out to today’s field site. Either the drivers are getting better, or I’m simply getting used to the roads. I’m rarely nervous in the cars these days.

10:15. I needn’t have worried about promptness. The car is only now ready to leave. A flat tire, it seems, first needed repairing (our second in two days), and then a stop by the malnutrition center across the way to load up boxes of Plumpy Nut, a UN-sanctioned feeding supplement for young children. And now we’re off, bouncing along the rutted orange road, green fields dotted with grass-crowned tukuls to both sides. Paul, my neighbor in the front seat, is wearing a plain pair of eyeglasses. He explains that they’re to protect his eyes from the dust. I jokingly tell him that I’m sure he’s just trying to look cool, and that it’s our job, as front seat passengers, to look fashionable, since we’re the ones the villagers, crouched in front of their storefronts, or leading lone cows by a length of rope, stick over their shoulders, gaze at curiously when we bump by. I explain that in the US, only a few people have cows, or farms, for that matter, and that most of the farms are very large. “Here, everyone has cows,” he says, “and there are many farms, but all of them are very small.”

Noon. Approaching the demonstration garden, we startle three sheep, which have found their way inside and are nibbling on the sorghum shoots. The garden is fenced, but there is only space where the gate should be. The local extension worker, Santino, who oversees this plot, shows us the garden’s various sections, designed to introduce villagers to “improved” agricultural techniques, like row planting and intercropping, in this case groundnut with maize. Germination has been slow; we haven’t had a substantial rain in almost two weeks. I am starting to worry about the fate of the field crops in Warrap, which can weather a ten-day drought but start to falter soon after. Santino is new to the job. His household broadcast-seeded its crops this year, but next year, he insists, he will plant in rows. We will soon ask him to run trainings on vegetable growing, and I want to know if he has experience growing any. Pumpkins and okra, he says. He would like to know about vegetable nurseries, and how to start such fragile plants from seed. I tell him not to worry, that vegetables are simply like babies; they just need lots of pampering and attention. I’m not sure how useful that analogy is here.

1:30 pm. We are back early, in time for lunch. The base’s gardener speaks to me in Dinka, gesturing at his stomach and saying, “Money, money.” I usually plead incomprehension at times like these, since I do not want to get in the habit of giving out money, but my English-speaking colleague is only to happy to translate. The gardener is hungry, he explains, and is asking for 5 Sudanese Pounds for lunch. His wife and child have been sick for some time, I know, and he has welcomed my directorship of the garden, and I oblige with the money (What else can I do?), adding that this is not something I plan to do often.

4:30 pm. Finally the rain has come. I visit my Dinka colleague in the main office. I had suggested that he print out a market survey form, since one must be filled out by Friday. He is staring at the computer screen blankly. He looks at me sheepishly, and it is evident that he has absolutely no idea how to use Excel. Hardly a computer whiz myself, I guide him through some simple operations, teaching him how to copy and paste and use the shift key. Among the more educated of this village’s locals, Paul has completed two years of secondary school, which clearly did not include computer training. We would like to be able to hand over management positions to as many Sudanese as possible, but some major roadblocks remain.

5 pm. I retreat to the lounge with my computer, planning to continue revising a vegetable garden training manual. “Knocked Up” is playing on the TV; the internet is down because of the storm, and so the expats are enjoying a break. There are Kenyans here; I wonder if the slacker/pothead culture the film depicts makes any sense to them whatsoever.

6:30 pm. The rain has stopped, and I venture out, as I almost always do in the evenings, to the vegetable garden, just to check on things. The eggplants have sprouted, along with some of the carrots and pumpkins. “What is your name?” a girl of about 14, walking over from the water pump, says in confident English. I am impressed. She is maybe the third local girl I have met so far who can speak any English at all. She is in her sixth year of primary school, I discover. I hope that her studies will not be derailed by early marriage or pregnancy, or a lack of funds with which to pay school fees. We chat a bit, and she returns to the pump, while I check on the pumpkins. “Goodbye, sister,” my new acquaintance calls out, hoisting a plastic yellow jerry can onto her head and strolling off into the dusk.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Maloda Blues

We are bringing the Alek garden back to life. There is a gardener here, who comes three days a week, but he has been working without instruction for the past few months, if not more. When I arrived, the few edible plants growing included a small patch of okra, a bushy crop of expired green beans, some starts of sukuma wiki (collard greens) and a lone maize plant. Not exactly a bounty.

This coming month, we plan to distribute vegetable seeds to some 1200 “beneficiaries,” in the humanitarian lingo, and offer basic training on how to sow and care for these plants. Most people here focus their resources on the staple crops. Maize. Sorghum. Sesame. Peanuts. They might produce some okra and hibiscus. These are considered the foods that sustain. They plant when the rainy season begins, sometime between April and July. Whatever they manage to harvest, usually around September, serves as both their food supply and their seed stock for the following growing season. Often, the rains are late and irregular. Sometimes, like last year, there is too much rain, and the fields are flooded before the crops can be harvested.

In our humanitarian minds, we see problems in both the quantity and the diversity of the foods the Dinka grow. The vegetable seeds initiative seeks to mitigate both of these issues, expanding both the variety of vitamins and minerals in and the total volume of the foods the average household produces. As a bonus, surplus vegetables can be sold in the market, providing families with much-needed cash.

But we always must remember that the humanitarian perspective is just that, a perspective. Affecting behavioral change in groups of people is never straightforward. Culture, tradition and sheer laziness often trump logic, knowledge and common sense. Look at global warming in America. How many people have actually retrofitted their homes to be more energy efficient, even when they know it will save them money, and cut down significantly on their carbon footprints, within a couple of years?

The Dinka are pastoralists primarily, cattle herders who display their wealth by the size of their herds. Cattle are their currency, and are implicated in the most significant events in tribal society—births, inter-clan disputes, marriages.

For them, farming is a necessity, but an uncelebrated one. Their tool of choice for cultivating is the maloda, basically a hoe without the bend, a small flat digging piece on the end of a five foot-long stick. To use one “correctly,” you must kneel, and slowly, laboriously, edge your way along the earth, turning the soil handful by handful. Hoes are considered modern, and ox ploughs almost heretical (although they are slowly creeping into the fringes of society).

I see the Alek garden as an opportunity to begin to bridge the gap between the western and the Dinka perspectives on cultivating. I hope that it will encourage more people to try producing vegetables at home, of course, but I also recognize it as an opportunity for me to learn to appreciate both the labor and the mindset that lie behind local agriculture. In my various farming stints in the US, I have tended fields with tractors, oxen, horses and hoes, but until now, never a maloda. Here, it is all I have.

I hold my maloda like a hoe, wanting to pull the soil towards me. I soon realize that I must hold it sideways, and begin to turn the soil with gusto, as if back on a trail crew in the Appalachians somewhere. The crowd of locals gathered at the fence looks on in curiosity and hilarity, until one of them waves me over. He gestures that I should kneel, and turn the soil like our compound’s paid gardener beside me, who no doubt thinks the same but is too polite to criticize my technique himself. When I finally do kneel, to placate the crowd, but also to satisfy my own curiosity, the crowd cheers. The dry chunks of earth hurt my untrained knees, and I don’t last long, so I stand up, smile, shrug, and continue on.

To understand the Dinka, we must first embrace the maloda, it seems.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Does Rosetta Stone come in Dinka?

Me: (in English) Can you help me practice my numbers?
Rafael: (in English) Numbers?
Me: (in English) Yes. (in Dinka) 1, 2, 3, 4, 5…
Rafael: (in Dinka) Oh! 6, 7, …
Me: (in Dinka) 8, 9, 10, 11, 12…(in English) I don’t know any more.
Rafael: (in Dinka) 13, 14, 15, 16…
Me: (in English) Can you say them more slowly?
Rafael: (in Dinka) Hmm? 17, 18, 19, …
Me: (in English) No, more slowly. Slooooowwwwer. What was 13 again?
Rafael: (in Dinka) 13.
Me: (in Dinka) 13?
Rafael: (in Dinka) 13.
Me: (in English) Okay, good. Now, how do you say “How old are you?”
Rafael: Hmm? (confused expression)
Me: (in English) How old are you? What is your age? How many years do you have?
Rafael: (in English) I’m 32.
Me: (in English) No! I mean, I want to say, in Dinka, “How old are you?”
Rafael: (in Dinka) I’m 32.
Me: (in English) I mean, I want to ask the question, in Dinka.
Rafael: (in English) In Dinka, I would say…(in Dinka) I am 32 years old.
Me: (in English) No! The question!!! How old are you?
Rafael: (in Dinka) How old are you?
Me: (in Dinka) How old are you? (directed towards Rafael) How old are you?
Rafael: (in Dinka) How old are you?
Me: (in English) No, I’m asking you. (in Dinka) How old are you?
Rafael: (in English) I am 32.

Does Rosetta Stone come in Dinka? Anyone? Please?!

Sunday, July 4, 2010

A Very Starry Night

We're having electrical issues. Apparently, our resident handyman is not the most skilled electrician. He didn't realize, for instance, that it's generally well advised to shut the power off before you begin fiddling with wires. And the day I arrived here in Wunrok he succeeded in frying a bunch of fuses and our main electrical switch. Conveniently, a high-up guy from the logistics department in Nairobi was visiting, and he managed a quick patch job, but he warned us that it would only be temporary, and today the system conked.

I'm truly sorry for the loss of power, only because I had a long-awaited Skype chat this evening. But at the same time being without electricity has really changed the social dynamics here. Untethered to the internet, my colleagues and I have enjoyed quite a few leisurely conversations--about working in Sudan and Palestine, long-distance relationships and European countries' varied approaches to foreign language learning.

And in the absence of technological distraction, I made some progress bonding with our female cleaning and cooking crew. Someone explained to them on my behalf that I was trying to learn Dinka, and so they helpfully started providing me with some useful vocab, everything from "sandals" to "tomato paste" to "watermelon." Abstract concepts are harder territory to navigate, but it's a good start nonetheless.

Then I made my first solo trip anywhere in Sudan, to the Wunrok market to buy some "warr," or flip flops, that actually fit me (the ones that were provided for me are designed for Sudanese feet, that is, long and narrow). A bit of gawking, lots of laughter, cries of "Kawaja!" all around, but nothing threatening whatsoever. Having the freedom to move, to explore, feels fantastic, even if it's a pretty limited freedom.

Finally, this evening, after a couple of hours trying unsuccessfully to rig up a back-up generator, I sat down with the night watchman and company. Word of my interest in "Muan jang" (Dinka language) must have gotten around, because they immediately started rattling off vocab. Their pedagogy could use some work (one of them began listing the numbers from 1-100 at breakneck speed), but I much appreciated their intentions. No soccer game on the TV to distract us, just a night full of bright stars and the sounds of our own voices and the croaking of a million frogs.

To cap it all, the driver who had acted so sullen on the way home two days ago greeted me by name and revealed that he used to teach Dinka language in Khartoum. He seems like an intelligent, precise kind of guy with a somewhat analytical approach to language, which is what I need. Much as I'd like to, I don't learn well simply by listening--I need to understand concepts, patterns, logic. And I may well need many more trips to the market, chapati-making sessions in the kitchen and leisurely, starry nights.

Friday, July 2, 2010


Aka hurtling along deeply pitted and potholed roads through herds of unconcerned cattle and curious goats. Speeding on narrow, eroding shoulders past overburdened trucks bearing loads of market goods all the way from Khartoum (800 miles to the north), hoping that the drivers see us (and care enough to make room for us to pass) through the clouds of orange dust that trail in their wake.

From what I have seen, our drivers are men of few words. Probably in part because there's more than enough on the road to occupy their attention. And also because their English is limited, and because, despite my efforts to be friendly, they likely don't feel the need, or desire, to strike up a conversation.

This is significant only because whichever expats happen to be riding in a car on a given day are officially responsible for making sure the driver proceeds with caution. And I'd like to build some rapport with a young, hotheaded Sudanese guy before politely suggesting that maybe 30 mph is a bit fast to be racing through a roadless village, or that he navigate the potholes with a bit more regard for the human passengers in the backseat. As one of my colleagues said last night, "We are humans; we are not a load of bricks."

I have joined my Food Security "Mentor" on three site visits over the past week, and the rainy season's mud has foiled us all three times. Twice, extracting ourselves was a fairly simple matter, as the passengers, along with hordes of farmers emerging from the scrub, cleared away the mud, gathered branches for traction and pushed us free. Once, our smiling rescuers piled into the back of our vehicle, jabbering away among themselves, and happily accepted a ride to the nearest town.

The third time, we were not so lucky. In the morning, our local program staff told me they didn't think we'd make it to our destination. The rains were too recent, our Land Cruiser too weak, the mud pits too extensive, the village in question too remote. But my mentor, an affable Italian expat attempting to stay on schedule, insisted that we try. We needed to visit this village to conduct a baseline assessment, and the roads would only become more impassable as the rainy season progressed.

But the locals were right. We succeeded in getting not only the two vehicles in our caravan impossibly lodged in a 500-yard mudflat, but also the "rescue car," which showed up about an hour before sunset, without headlights. Five of us, sensing the inadequacy of the proposed rescue effort, ditched the car mid-afternoon and slogged the 7 miles back to the compound. (A very welcome slog, mind you, at least on my part, since exercise has been hard to come by.)

Our driver yesterday started out at a comfortable, cautious pace, and I was pleasantly, though perhaps prematurely, content. For two-thirds of the day, all appeared fine. The we stopped for a final soda in a large market town on the way home, and the driver disappeared for a few minutes, returning with a mysterious package. My expat mentor approached him; apparently some drivers have created problems in the past by transporting goods that they intend to sell elsewhere in company vehicles, and he wanted to make sure that the driver wasn't abusing his privileges.

As soon as we rejoined the road, the driver became defensive and angry. The rest of the staff protested, and as the volume of the shouting match increased, so did the driver's speed and apparent disregard for the human and animal life on the road ahead. Finally, my Italian friend managed to shut everyone up. "Let him do his job," he insisted. "We can deal with this later." Our driver seemed to relax somewhat, but his good humor was clearly exhausted, and I reluctantly gave up hopes that this was at least one driver in South Sudan that I could trust.

This morning, we have yet another site visit planned, but as of 10 am, our driver has not yet made an appearance. Rumor has it he may be ill, or angry, but in any case, I for one am not entirely sorry for the delay.
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...